A Critique of “2017 Resolutions for Bi Girls, or How Not to be a Homophobe”
By H. Bradford
An unsettling list appeared on my Facebook feed recently. It was entitled 2017 “Resolutions for Bi Girls, or How Not to be a Homophobe.” I poured over it, not sure what to make of it. The advice was how bisexual girls can avoid being homophobic. Of course, everyone should aspire to fight against homophobia. Thus, if there are some nuggets of useful advice in this top ten list, these should be embraced. At the same time, there was something abrasive and offensive to the list. I will examine this list, what could be learned from it, and what strikes me as unfair to bisexuals.
The Title: 2017 Resolutions for Bi Girls, or How Not to be a Homophobe.
To me, the title seemed sexist and degrading. For one, it was directed at bisexual girls. The use of the word “girl” seems disrespectful. Rather than addressing the piece to bisexual women, which sounds more respectful, the more dismissive and patronizing word “girl” was selected. I am not sure who wrote it, but if anyone were to say, “hey girl, listen to this…” I would feel as though I am being talked down to. Granted, there are informal situations where being called “girl” is not offensive, but I can’t think of too many examples wherein it is acceptable for stranger seeking to explain something would use “girl” when addressing women. Further, I wondered why the advice was directed at “girls” instead of all bisexuals. This might imply that bisexual girls are more homophobic than bisexual men or bisexual trans people. Couldn’t these resolutions be addressed to bisexual PEOPLE?!
1. Stop using the word queer.
I find this advice off-putting at the very least, since it is a command to avoid the use of commonly used language in the LGBTQ movement. Of course, it is important to note that not everyone is comfortable with the word queer, especially someone who experienced that word through bullying. Queer is taken for granted and has become fairly mainstream. Even the Women’s March on Washington uses the word queer when raising demands for LGBT individuals. Heck, even the USA Today ran an article about the use of the word queer. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think that the USA Today is at the forefront of queer liberation. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/06/01/lgbtq-questioning-queer-meaning/26925563/
Queer is meant to be inclusive. It is meant to be a way to avoid the alphabet soup of LGBTQUIAH…identities and include people who may not neatly fit into gender or sexuality labels. It is also a word that was meant to break down barriers between identities within the LGBTQ community to have a shared identity instead. For some people, it is empowering to reclaim the word. I will admit, I like the word. It seems radical and cool. The word itself means eccentric and unusual, which I would embrace over conventional and normal. But, it has over a century of history of being a slur against LGBTQ individuals. This history isn’t easily forgotten nor should it be flippantly dismissed. Also, not everyone wants to be lumped into a queer community. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, etc. identities have meaning and this meaning might get lost in the wanton lumping individuals into a generic queer community. I think it is prudent to use caution when employing the word queer, to recognize that it can be just as radical to reject the word, and to use different language in different contexts. However, the command to stop using it entirely is counter productive, especially when many social movement organizations/non-profits specifically use the word queer and have adopted “q” as an official part of the LGBTQ acronym, such as Planned Parenthood, OutFront MN, and GLAAD. At the very least, bisexuals would be unusual for abstaining from the use of the word queer.
2. Don’t claim bi-erasure when you won’t call yourself bi. What is wrong with the word bisexual?
I label myself bisexual, when I am more accurately pansexual. I do this because I feel that there is nothing wrong with the label bisexual, it is historically trans inclusive, it is recognizable, and bi seems more accurate than “pan” which generically means everything or all inclusive. At the same time, there is nothing to be gained by label policing pansexuals and bisexuals. Pansexuals may accused bisexuals of not being inclusive of transgender individuals. This piece of advice seems to blame pansexuals on bi-erasure. This kind of bickering and blaming is not conducive to building a united movement.
Pansexuals (or for that matter any other bi+ identity) have nothing to do with bi-erasure. The average person can identify dozens of sports teams by their colors and mascot. The average person can probably identify at least a dozen breeds of dogs. The average person can identify dozens of varieties of fruit. No one mistakes a strawberry for a banana or a bulldog for Afghan Hound. Humans have an amazing ability to categorize vast amounts of information. Therefore, I fully believe that almost everyone could easily differentiate and identify a least a dozen sexualities. This ability is stifled by lack of quality sex education and a conservative education system that teaches next to nothing about gays and lesbians in history, much less bisexuals, asexuals, or any other sexual minority. It is taboo to teach these things in most public schools. These identities are absent from textbooks. And while sex may be commonplace in the media, it is a very narrow sexuality which mostly consists of an oppressive and objectifying version of heterosexuality. With that said, the average American should easily be able to differentiate between pansexual and bisexual. The average American should easily be able to differentiate between bisexual and gay. In part, the invisibility of bisexuality likely stems from the overall sexual ignorance of most Americans. This ignorance of sexuality is a way to render sexual minorities invisible and deny them a place in society and history.
At deeper level, bisexuality itself is uncomfortable. To some, it is a challenge to monogamy and the notion of fixed sexuality rooted in biology. Monogamy has been the cornerstone of private property for thousands of years. Anything that remotely sniffs of a challenge to this, is a challenge to the basis of private property and the entitlement one person to the sexuality of another. Bisexuality does not have to challenge these things. But, I think many bisexuals feel like outsiders to the dominant narratives of sexuality. This makes it dangerous. At the same time, many bisexuals pass as heterosexuals. This makes us seem less visible and less oppressed. As a whole, fears and prejudices, combined with an uncertain position within the LGBTQ community also lends itself to invisibility. Thus, the issue of bi-erasure is not because bisexuals are not embracing the label “bisexual,” but because of larger social forces.
3. Don’t call lesbians women loving women or queer.
Actually, there is nothing wrong with this advice. I feel that people should respect the labels and identities that others choose for themselves. To do otherwise imposes a worldview upon them and undermines their autonomy to define themselves.
4. Stop pretending that our attraction to men is in any way marginalized.
I don’t know that I have heard anyone complain that they are marginalized by their relationship with someone of the opposite sex. The bisexuals whom I have spoken with have expressed that their sexuality seems invisible or that they wish we lived in a different society where there was more room for sexual freedom and exploration. So, there is a certain degree of invisibility and defeat in these relationships, but there is also commitment, love, and compromise.
5. Recognize that biphobia is not a unique axis of oppression. It exists for bi women as the intersection of homophobia and misogyny, if it exists at all. There is no systematic biphobia. The oppression we face is homophobia.
I struggled with this piece of advice the most. To untangle this, I had to first consider the nature of oppression. There are many kinds of oppression in society. For instance, women are presently oppressed by capitalist patriarchy, which devalues women, defines their roles, and historically treated them like property for the purpose of harnessing their unpaid labor and reproductive power in the interest of capitalism. Racial minorities experience racism, which in the context of capitalism, divides the working class, deflates wages, and refocuses social attention. Of course, various racial minorities experience racism differently. For Native Americans, racism comes in the form of violation of treaty rights, denial of cultural practices, genocide and stealing of their land, and marginalization and exclusion from society. For some Latinx Americans, racism might come in the form of English only language instruction in schools, anti-immigration sentiments, or the real threat of deportation. Somali Americans might experience racism in the form of government surveillance, police coercion, Islamophobia, and harassment in the name of anti-terrorism. While various racial/ethnic groups may experience racism uniquely, this does not mean that one group is more oppressed than the other or that the experience of one group should be discounted. It would be absurd and offensive to tell an Asian person that they don’t experience racism or that they should be excluded from anti-racism activism because they are not oppressed enough. In the same way, all sexual minorities experience heterosexism. It is true that some groups experience it much more profoundly. For instance, a low income, bisexual, transwoman of color is probably extremely oppressed by compounding oppressions she faces. But, there is no oppression meter which can be pointed at bisexuals, lesbians, gays, asexuals, etc. to determine who is the most oppressed. Even if there was, what purpose would it serve? All of these people are in some way oppressed by a system that privileges heterosexuality over other sexualities. Each of these groups is seen as abnormal to varying degrees. While gays and lesbians might be more likely to experience homophobic violence, bisexuals are more likely to experience relationship violence. Why keep score? People are being hurt..or killed! It is more productive to fight oppression than fight one another. Heterosexism serves to preserve traditional gender roles and relationships. The role of heterosexism in capitalism is that it preserves a family structure that conveniently creates more children at zero cost to capitalists. The family offers free maintenance of workers through unpaid care work. Is it any surprise that homophobes/transphobes often retreat to arguments about family, child safety, and child rearing? Or, that for gays and lesbians to obtain any modicum of acceptance in society, they must present themselves as non-threatening, white, middle class, and traditionally family oriented?
While I don’t know that the oppression faced by bisexuals is something separate from the general heterosexism faced by all sexual minorities, I will argue that there are experiences that are unique to bisexuals. Terms like biphobia and bi-erasure are used to describe these unique facets of heterosexism. For any oppressed group, there is a need to both work together but also autonomously organize. This is why I wanted to start up a group for bisexuals. I wanted us to have our own group so that we could discuss ideas, educate one another, develop our identity, brainstorm demands, and engage in activism. Ideally, by organizing as our own group, we would be better able to avail ourselves in the larger struggle against heterosexism. I think that all groups should do the same. There should be lesbian groups or gay groups. There should be groups that unite to include everyone impacted by heterosexism. There is nothing to lose by developing groups of people who are committed to dismantling oppression. There is nothing to gain by excluding groups because they are not oppressed enough or do not have the same experiences of oppression. No one experiences oppression exactly the same way. Oppressions intersect. A working class, bi woman with mental illness may very well be more oppressed than a middle class gay man without mental illness. Again, why keep score? Why further divide people who have a shared interest in ending heterosexism?
6. Recognize that straight passing privilege is real.
I agree and disagree with this. I agree because passing as straight is a privilege. It provides safety from anti-gay violence. In some parts of the world, it can help a person avoid arrest and imprisonment. So, of course it is a privilege. At the extreme, it can be a survival tactic. But, is it truly a privilege when NOT passing is met with the threat of violence? It is the privilege to successfully deceive and become invisible. And to be fair, there are gays and lesbians who pass as straight or are believed to be straight until they correct the error. Heterosexuality is viewed as normal and therefore assumed. Nevertheless, anyone who is believed to be heterosexual and cisgender, can benefit from the privileges bestowed upon these groups at the expense of their authenticity and autonomy. This doesn’t seem very privileged. This advice seems to blame bisexuals for passing as straight rather than attacking a society wherein sexual identities are driven underground, ignored, hated, and misunderstood. I don’t think anyone gains in a world where people “pass” or have to pass.
7. Recognize that if you are dating a boy, you are in a straight relationship.
A major theme in the discussions at Pandemonium, a bi+ group that I started a few months ago, is the theme of invisibility. Many of the members are in relationships with heterosexual partners. While they cherish these relationships, it can make their sexuality seem invisible. Commanding bisexuals to identify themselves as in “straight relationships” would only add to this sense of invisibility and marginalization. I can understand how the author may feel upset with bisexual women who are dating men. This might seem inauthentic. It might seem like, “Woe is me, I am so oppressed!” But, in my experience, there is a sense of longing for more. I think many of us wish for a different society, where sexuality can be expressed more freely or with less social consequence. It would be nice if the concept of “cheating” evaporated. However, because most people have an expectation of monogamy, bisexuals are always forced to chose between what appears like a straight relationship or a gay relationship. The exception might be a polyamorous relationship, but there are many barriers to obtaining this. Namely, that the vast majority of people are not polyamorous. Statistically speaking, it is far more likely that a bisexual will meet an individual partner who has an expectation of monogamy. (Of course, many bisexuals are monogamous and desire this as well). Bisexuals should have the ability to classify their relationship as they like. Some might call it a straight relationship. They might classify it as a bisexual in a relationship with a straight person. Maybe their straight partner doesn’t even calls the relationship straight. Maybe the have questions about their sexuality or are open to other options, but at the moment, consider themself straight. They may be in an abusive relationship and FORCED to call themselves and their relationship straight. Why does it matter what the relationship is called? Why can’t bisexuals be trusted to identify their relationship in terms that they find empowering and affirming? I believe that everyone benefits from anything that challenges heterosexism, even if it is just a name or a label. Labels convey meaning. New meanings can challenge dominant understandings about what is real, true, or good in the world.
8. Stop implying that gay is wrong got not being attracted to both sexes. Cut it out with the “hearts not parts”
I never interpreted “hearts not parts” as a command to everyone in the universe that bisexuality is the only correct sexuality. I assumed that those who used that slogan were using it as a personal motto to convey their interest in someone’s emotions over their body parts. Or, it is what is on the inside that matters. I think if it is used as a personal motto to assert one’s opinion or preference, it should not matter. If it is indeed a command or used to shame other sexualities, then of course it should be avoided.
9. Stop implying that everyone is bisexual by insisting that sexuality is fluid.
This one is one of my pet peeves and a mistake I have made in the past. From a sociological perspective, all of our modern sexualities are socially constructed and fairly new. Concepts related to sexuality differ across times and cultures. In this sense, there is no such thing as gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, etc. as they are all modern concepts developed in the industrialized Western world by psychologists and doctors. There is a wide array of how humans can express their gender and sexuality. In a world that did not privilege heterosexuality, where all genders/sexualities were equal, and there was no negative social sanction for gender and sexual expression, I am sure that people would express their sexuality in all sorts of novel ways. Thus, to some degree, I believe that sexuality is fluid because of the ways that it is shaped by society.
On the other hand, sexuality is real to those who experience it. Just as race is a social construct, it is pretty real to those who are incarcerated or beaten by police because of the color of their skin. So, there are two kinds of reality. There is the reality that these categories are socially constructed and the reality that it doesn’t really matter because they have very real consequences in our society. When a person says, “everyone is bi” or “sexuality is fluid” this may speak to the abstract notion that it is possible that sexuality is a lot more flexible than we think. However, it denies the lived reality of gays, lesbians, or heterosexuals who do not experience bisexuality or fluid sexuality. Just as when a white person says, “We are all Africans” yes, this is technically correct. All humans evolved in Africa. But, we are not all dying of preventable diseases, colonized, or enslaved. Thus, I do think it is a good idea to be very clear in what one means. It is sloppy to say that all people are bisexual. It is sloppy and offensive, because there are plenty of people who are not. This is their lived reality. Calling them bi makes their sexuality invisible and less legitimate. I certainly want to be visible and legitimate. And, while in an abstract perfect society, sexuality may be much more fluid, there may be people who have a strong preference for the same sex, opposite sex, or no one. I would expect this to be true. Though, since we have yet to create a perfect society, it is hard to know. We can only speculate based upon how sexuality has changed over time and varies across cultures.
10. Know when our voice is necessary in a discussion. Are there people more qualified to speak?
I would hope that anyone exercises prudence when they speak. I am not sure what the future holds for Pandemonium (the bi+ group). My own hope is that I grow in my knowledge of bisexuality and can become a part of the LGBT movement. I hope that I can be a voice that speaks on matters related to bisexuality and sexuality in general. I would like to educate others as I educate myself. I feel that bisexuals should be a part of the discussion on LGBTQ issues. Of course, we should not be the only voice or the dominant voice. But, I don’t see any reason why we can’t be an equal among many voices. As for qualifications, I don’t know how one becomes qualified to speak on a topic. I hope that through our discussion group, through activism, and through connecting with the larger community, we all become more qualified to speak. But the concept of “qualified” should not be used to silence anyone. I have often felt like I wasn’t qualified to speak about women’s issues, socialism, anti-war, foreign policy, education, or any number of things out of fear that I would make a mistake or that I was wrong. I still feel that way! Perhaps I am not even qualified to identify “how not to be a homophobe.” However, I think that if I am willing to wrestle with ideas and thoughtfully express my opinion based off of what I know and have experienced, I am qualified enough!